President’s Column: R.S.V.P.
The invitation read, “The time is ripe for a large organization of women Zionists.” The mission of the organization about to be born was “the promotion of Jewish institutions in Palestine and the fostering of Jewish ideals.”
Looking backward, history seems inevitable. But in February 1912, that missive took audacity to new heights. Most of the women who received the invitation were homemakers with children. Few had higher educations. In America, the land of the free, none of them had the right to vote.
Henrietta Szold called Hadassah’s founding meeting to order on February 24, in the vestry room of New York’s Temple Emanu-El, at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street. She spoke of her trip to Palestine and the appalling public health conditions there. Most of the ideas discussed at that meeting—a day nursery, a school for midwives, a maternity hospital, a nursing mission—involved health care.
Those women with little power set out to empower themselves in a tense world on the cusp of change. Hadassah’s founding came a year after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which killed dozens of Jewish women and inspired many more to take destiny into their own hands.
That first meeting took place just six weeks before the sinking of the Titanic, which would ultimately have an impact on the new Zionist venture. To honor the memory of his brother and sister-in-law, who went down with the ship, Nathan Straus dedicated his life to philanthropy with an emphasis on Palestine; less than a year later, he became a partner in the venture to send the first two Hadassah nurses to Jerusalem.
February 24, 1912, might be viewed as the day Jewish women resolved that instead of being buffeted by the waves of history, they would use their energy to navigate them.
Could the women at that first meeting have known what they would accomplish? Probably not in the bricks-and-mortar sense. But in terms of values, they knew exactly what they were doing. Bricks and mortar would follow.
By 1948, Hadassah had built a network—more than 130 hospitals, clinics, dispensaries and infant-welfare stations—that would be the foundation of modern Israel’s health care system. With the opening of vocational schools and responsibility for Youth Aliyah, Hadassah was also a pivotal force in building Israel’s educational foundation.
ust as important, our grandmothers’ generation forever raised the stature of Jewish women. Rather than ask for a seat at the table of Jewish leadership, they just sat down. Of all the American Jewish organizations born at the beginning of the last century, Hadassah—more than any other—is a household name in Israel today.
Over the course of 100 years, the women of Hadassah have traveled more than a billion miles in pursuit of our mission. But in one sense we have hardly budged. Hadassah House today, on West 58th Street, is just 15 blocks from the old Temple Emanu-El. In the contrast between our towering achievements and staying in the same neighborhood, I see a reflection of our adaptable navigation of the waves of history and the constancy of our values.
On February 24, 2012, Hadassah will be back where we started. Rabbi David Posner of Temple Emanu-El (today on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 65th Street) has invited us to a Shabbat service to celebrate our landmark anniversary and his congregation’s historic link with us.
Henrietta Szold surely would have recognized February 2012 as the end of an era. But as she famously said, “There is no ending that is not also a beginning.” And with this beginning comes a new invitation.
All of Hadassah’s members, supporters and friends are invited to attend our Centennial Convention this coming October in Jerusalem. The central event will be the dedication of the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower. This state-of-the-art complex, our largest building project in more than 50 years, will raise Hadassah’s already high profile on the Israeli landscape.
I hope to see all of you there. Let’s begin now so that future generations will look back on our achievements and think they were inevitable